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Shirking public opinion amid COVID surge, Japan's leaders insist Olympics "definitely" on

Tokyo governor on Olympics, coronavirus
Tokyo governor on Olympics, coronavirus pandemic 02:11

Tokyo — Japan's leaders maintained a united front on Tuesday in the face of resurgent coronavirus infections and an expanding state of emergency, vowing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would kick off as planned on July 23, come hell or high water. 

"With your support, we'll emerge from this tunnel of darkness," Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori exhorted his 3,500-strong staff in an online new year address. The Japan Olympic Committee chair vowed to "do his best, to the very end, to bring many people joy and hope," a version of the refrain adopted when the Games were originally postponed in March 2020.

Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori (L) speaks during the opening remarks session of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics executive board meeting in Tokyo on December 22, 2020. CARL COURT/POOL/AFP/Getty

Acknowledging a growing chorus of skepticism in Japan, however, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said it was "natural for the Japanese people to have concern… Our mission is to be fully prepared."

Muto dismissed as "fake news" reports that the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 were to meet next month to decide whether to pull the plug on the Games. Any such decision is widely expected to be delayed until just before the start of the Olympic torch relay, set for March 25. 

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, meanwhile, was afforded a chance to underscore Tokyo's resolve during a brief phone call with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. According to remarks relayed by Takeshi Niinami, the CEO of Japanese beverage conglomerate Suntory, who set up the call on Gates' behalf, the two agreed that the safety of the Olympics depends on vaccinations being made available to developing countries.

Suga was quoted as saying the Games were "definitely" on. 

But the naysayers seem to be winning, at least in the court of public opinion.

On Monday, English Olympic rower and four-time gold medalist Matthew Pinsent called for postponement of the Games until the next scheduled Summer Olympics rolls around — in three years. 

"My own view is that the Summer Olympic queue should be asked to shift," he tweeted, calling for Tokyo to host in 2024, with Paris and Los Angeles hosting in 2028 and 2032, respectively. "The athletes lose an Olympics but that's looking likelier by the day."

U.S. athletes get creative to train for postponed 2021 Olympic games 02:48

Separate polls over the weekend by the TBS TV network and Kyodo News Service both revealed that about 80% of Japanese now favor postponement or cancelling the Games altogether — a show of spiraling anxiety as COVID-19 infections appear to be surging out of control.

Even before this latest gauge of domestic opposition, late last week the IOC's longest-serving member, Richard Pound, told the BBC he "can't be certain" the Games will go ahead because of the deteriorating pandemic situation in Japan, and worldwide.

While Japan's case numbers are considerably lower than in Western nations, a third wave of infections has strained hospitals and left patients struggling to find treatment.

The state of emergency declared last week for Tokyo and the surrounding three prefectures will be extended to three more heavily-populated prefectures in western Japan on Wednesday, and other areas are seeking inclusion.

Japanese PM Suga Declares State of Emergency For Tokyo Area
Yoshihide Suga, Japan's prime minister, speaks during a news conference at the prime minister's official residence, January 7, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Kiyoshi Ota/Getty

Making matters worse, pandemic fatigue seems to have set in, blunting the impact of the latest round of relatively lenient restrictions. Meanwhile, a report on TBS News said 34 cases of new, more infectious COVID strains that have emerged in other regions were among the new infections identified in Japan. 

Suga's own health experts, and even members of the Olympic committee — off the record — have expressed pessimism about the wisdom of going ahead with the Games this summer.

Some online critics have unflatteringly compared their leaders' unswerving commitment to staging the world's biggest sports event in the midst of a health crisis to the Japanese Imperial Army fighting on, futilely, during World War II, because "giving up wasn't an option."

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